|The dichotomy of American involvement in World War One was, of course, that America was in the war fighting to make the world safe for democracy, but many African Americans in the United States did not enjoy that very premise.
While the American military leaders had little faith in African American ability in combat, they acknowledged that everyone would be needed in the war effort nonetheless. With the severance of diplomatic relations with Germany in March 1917, a month before the U.S. declared war, the First Separate Battalion (Colored) of the Washington D.C. National Guard was mustered into federal service to guard the White House, Capitol and other federal buildings.
From most accounts, African American leaders backed America’s entry into the war. In one instance, the secretary of the NAACP said that patriotism was fanned into a flame in Harlem.
While there were regular Army units of African Americans in service at the start of the war, the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry, the Army command decided to use only National Guard and drafted units in Europe. The Regular army units would provide cadres of non-commissioned officers and specialists for the overseas units.
The total number of African-American men called under the Selective Service Draft Regulations during 1917-1918: 367,710
Mistreatment of soldiers of the 24th Infantry stationed in Houston led to disturbances between the soldiers and civilians in August 1917 which resulted in some civilian deaths and the executions of 13 soldiers of the 24th Infantry.
While the soldiers expected the uniform of the United States to be accorded proper respect, the reality of many situations, especially in the south, did not support this belief.
Some National Guard organizations fared better. The 8th Illinois National Guard, which became the 370th Infantry Regiment was the only guard organization with a full complement of African American officers, which was a source of pride. It had seen combat service on the Mexican Border in the years just prior to 1917
On the whole training facilities and quality of training for African American troops was substandard
With a few exceptions like the officer training camp at Camp Hancock, Georgia where the commander insisted on good training and proper respect and the instructors were French and British Officers.
Social support systems for soldiers were in place, with The Knights of Columbus, Salvation Army and the Red Cross doing a fair job of helping the troops with integrated services.
In most African American communities there was overwhelming support of the Liberty Bond drives in 1917.
On the homefront, the contributions to the war effort were varied and successful, including: The Women’s Auxiliary of the 15th regiment; individual efforts by Eva D. Bowles, Secretary of the Colored Women’s War Work in Cities. Alice Dunbar Nelson, the recognized leader of mobilization of African American women for the Council of National defense. Louise J. Ross, the chairperson of the New Orleans Chapter American Red Cross.
African Americans worked with the U.S. Department of Labor, the national Bureau of War Risk Insurance, the Women’s Motor Corps, nationwide war fund drives, the War Camp Community Service, war-time National Food Administration Young Women’s Christian Association and Young Men’s Christian Association, the American Red Cross Nurses and Canteen Workers. One reference described that when the African American 805th Pioneer Infantry passed through Kansas City, Kansas heading for Europe, they were served by a canteen committee and supplied with candy, chewing gum, smokes and matches.
African Americans were employed in a number of war industries, including munitions production. There were the Organized Women Knitters and the Circle of Negro War Relief.
Mr. Emmett J. Scott, of the Tuskegee Institute, was Special Assistant to the Secretary of War, Newton Baker. Mr. Scott became a noted historian of the African American efforts in the war.
The first African Americans in military service to be in combat zones were in the U.S. Navy and were among the service personnel landing the first troops of the American Expeditionary Forces in France.
While it is estimated that 1/3 of all labor troops in Europe were African Americans, it is not true that all were assigned to labor units.
The earliest combat units to reach France were assigned to French divisions and this included the former 15th New York, which became the 369th Fighting Rattlesnakes, part of the 93rd Division (provisional). Lieutenant James Reese Europe led the famous 369th Regimental Band.
Sergeant Henry Johnson, 369th Infantry was the first AMERICAN recipient of the French Croix de Guerre for bravery. Private Needham Roberts, 369th Infantry, was the second recipient. On May 14, 1918, a German raiding party wounded both men and when they attempted to take Roberts prisoner, Johnson fought with his rifle butt and bolo knife to free him. They killed four Germans and wounded several others. A posthumous Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to Henry Johnson in 2003.
The 369th Infantry Regiment took part in the July 15-18 Champagne-Marne Offensive, then occupied the lines in the Calvaire and Beausejour sectors, and by mid August, the 369th had been in the line for 130 days and by the end of the war had been on the FRONT line for a total of 191 days.
With the 371st and 372nd Regiments, the 369th fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive between September 26 and October 8th.
Horace Pippin, a member of the 369th kept and illustrated a journal of his experiences and these events would later play a large part in his work as a noted artist. Here he wrote with a sketch that the “guns were strong and all we could do were to wait.”
The 370th participated in the Oise-Aisne operation between September 15 and October 13th, and October 28 to November 11th, 1918.
Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry lead a squad against a strong German position on September 28, 1918 and although mortally wounded, Stowers, a 21 year old from North Carolina, urged his men on to defeat the Germans. His commanding officer recommended Corporal Stowers for the Medal of Honor. It was presented posthumously in 1991.
Lieutenant Colonel Otis B. Duncan of the 370th Infantry, was the highest-ranking African American in the American Expeditionary Forces.
The 92nd (Buffalo) Division participated in the occupation of the Saint Die Sector from August 23 to September 20, 1918
Second Lieutenant Aaron R. Fisher, 366th Infantry, in the middle of the photo, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action, near Lesseux, France, September 3, 1918. He showed exceptional bravery in action when a superior force of the enemy raided his position by directing his men and refusing to leave his position, although he was severely wounded. He and his men continued to fight the enemy until the latter was beaten off by a counterattack.” He was from Lyles, IN.
The 92nd took part in the Meuse-Argonne battle from September 26 to October 3rd.
First Lieutenant Robert L. Campbell, 368th Infantry was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action near Binarville, France, September 27, 1918. During the afternoon of September 27, Lieut. Campbell saw a runner fall wounded in the middle of a field swept by heavy machine gun fire. At imminent peril to his own life, and in full view of the enemy, he crossed the field and carried the wounded soldier to shelter.” Lieutenant Campbell was from Greensboro, NC.
The 92nd Occupied the Marbache Sector, October 9 – November 11 and participated in the attack of the 2nd Army November 10-11.
The 92nd had 1570 battle casualties and the 93rd, 3927.
Kansas Citian, Private Grant McClellan wrote home to his wife a number of letters describing his experiences
In one he related, “You asked me what Division I was in when we came over. We were the last part of the 92nd Division but when we got to the front they were resting and we went over the top with the 28th Division.”
The artist, Edward Tanner, who had ties to Kansas City, was too old at 58 in 1917 to serve in the military, so he joined the American Red Cross in France. He developed a plan to grow produce and raise livestock around military hospitals to provide better food and boost morale for the convalescent soldiers. By the summer of 1918, his program was a great success.
In September 1918, he received permission to sketch in the Military Advance Zone and he produced two lasting images: a charcoal drawing, “American Red Cross Canteen, World War One,” where he specifically included an African American soldier and again in the painting “American Red Cross Canteen at the Front.”
Tanner mustered out of Red Cross service in June 1919 and his painting “The Arch” was of the solemn festival of 13 July 1919 in honor of the dead.
Pioneer Infantry regiments were organized in the summer of 1918 and given standard infantry training so that if necessary they could be used in combat
Pioneer infantry regiments worked behind the front lines in the Argonne Forest and at St. Mihiel where they built narrow and wide gauge railroads and macadam roads for the movement of light and heavy artillery and supplies.
the 805th was rushed in to repair a road near Varenne, which had been so damaged by German shellfire that ammunition could not be moved forward. The Pioneers worked through the night with shells falling around them. Some also worked in burial details, often under shellfire. 7 of the 17 African American Pioneer Infantry Regiments were entitled to wear battle clasps on the Victory medals whereas of the other 20 Pioneer Infantry regiments, only 8 were.
The 809th Pioneer Infantry had a notable baseball team. It won the championship of the St. Nazaire league and finished third overall in the AEF.
Corporal, later sergeant, Vernon Coffey, of Kansas City, Missouri, joined the 806th Pioneer Infantry at Fort Riley (Camp Funston), Kansas. He received overseas clothes and weapons at Camp Mills, New York where he shipped out for France. After attending gas school at Langras, France, he served at ammunition dumps at Flury and Lima.
Coffey would return to his home after the war. Coffey finished, as he related, his law studies and became an attorney and a preacher, later, at the First AME Church in Kansas City, Kansas.
The labor battalions towards the end of the war were organized into 46 engineer service battalions, 44 labor battalions, 24 labor companies, 3 stevedore battalions, 2 stevedore regiments and 2 butchery companies.
Following the outpouring of joy for the Armistice on November 11, 1918 and the triumphant return of the troops, most found that little had changed and that the fight for equality at home was still many years in the making.
The two combat divisions, A.E.F. were composed as follows:
92nd Division, National Army (Buffalo Division)
183rd Infantry Brigade
365th Infantry Regiment
366th Infantry Regiment
350th Machine Gun Battalion
184th Infantry Brigade
351st Machine Gun Battalion
167th Field Artillery Brigade
349th F.A. Regiment
317th Trench Mortar Battery
349th Machine Gun Battalion
325th Field Signal Battalion
317th Engineer Regiment
Supply and Medical Trains, including Dental Corps
The 92nd Division was in battle for 17 days
93rd Division, Provisional
185th Infantry Brigade
186th Infantry Brigade
Some other examples of combat bravery: Captain Thomas E. Jones, Medical Corps attached to the 368th Infantry, awarded the Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action near Binarville, France, September 27, 1918. Captain Jones went into an open area subjected to direct machine gun fire to care for a wounded soldier who was being carried by another officer. While dressing the wounded soldier, a machine gun bullet passed between his arms and chest and a man was killed within a few yards of him.” He was from Washington, D.C. Corporal Van Horton, 366th Infantry, awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, “for extraordinary heroism in action near Lesseau, France, September 4, 1918.” Corporal Horton held his position, stopping a powerful enemy attack. He was from Athens, AL.
Private Joe Williams, 366th Infantry, Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action near Lesseau, France.” Private Williams, though wounded, held off an enemy attack with three other soldiers. He was from Octon, AL.
Private (later Sergeant) Roy A. Brown, 366th Infantry, Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action near Lesseau, France. Private Brown, though wounded, held off an enemy attack with three other soldiers. He was from Decatur, AL.
Private Ed Merrifield, 366th Infantry, Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action near Lesseau, France.” Although severely wounded, Private Merrifield remained at his post and prevented the success of an enemy raid. He was from Greenville, IL.
Private Alex Hammond, 366th Infantry, Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action near Lesseau, France.” Although Private Hammond was severely wounded, he prevented a breakthrough by an enemy raid in force. He was from Harvest, AL.
Private George Bell, 366th Infantry, Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action near Lesseau, France.” Although Private Bell was severely wounded, he prevented a breakthrough by an enemy raid in force. He was from Athens, AL.
Private Will Clincy, Private 1st Class, 366th Infantry, Distinguished Service Cross “for extraordinary heroism in action near Frapelle, France, September 4, 1918.” Private Clincy showed exceptional bravery during an enemy raid. His teammate on an automatic rifle was mortally wounded and Clincy, although also wounded, continued to serve his weapon alone until the raid was driven back. He was from Birmingham, AL.
Twelve other African Americans were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for combat bravery.
Sergeant Rufus Pinckney, 372nd Infantry was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for capturing fifteen Germans and saving a French officer’s life.
Other recipients of the Croix de Guerre included:
Private Ed Williams
Private Herbert Taylor
Private Leon Fraitor
Private Ralph Hawkins
Private H.D. Prunes
Sergeant D. Stormes
Private Arthur Menly all of the 369th Infantry
*[Period references and period titles, especially of organizations which use terms not in common usage today were used in this section].
Congressional Medal of Honor, The Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal Issued by the War Department, April 6, 1917 – November 11, 1919; compiled in the Office of the Adjutant general of the Army, 1919.
Order of Battle of the United States Land Forces in the World War, American Expeditionary Forces – Divisions; Historical Section, Army War College, 1931.
92nd Division Summary of Operations in the World War; American Battle Monuments Commission, 1944.
93rd Division Summary of Operations in the World War; American Battle Monuments Commission, 1944.
The American Negro in the World War; Emmett J. Scott, 1919.
History of the American Negro in the Great World War; W. Allison Sweeney, 1919.
The Unknown Soldiers – African-American Troops in World War I; Arthur E. Barbeau & Florette Henri, 1974, 1996.
The Doughboy, Summer 1991, Volume 14., No. 1.
Across Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner; Dewey F. Mosby, 1995.
“African-American Artist and Soldier” by Walter Kudlick, Stand To! The Journal of the Western Front Association, January 1997, No. 48.
United States Army in the World War, 1917-1919, 16 volumes; Historical Division, Department of the Army, 1948.
Personal Documents in the Archives of the Liberty Memorial Museum, Kansas City, MO.